HOW UPCOMING TECH AFFECTS GENDER PERCEPTION IN VIDEO GAMES

As is usually the case with my topics, I’ll start with a bit of setup:

I am a male who, given the option, will choose a female game character the majority of the time. I am not alone in this. I’ve heard many explanations for this over the years, ranging from, “I’m not being the character, I’m accompanying her and guiding her to keep her safe,” to “If I’m going to spend X hours playing this game, I might as well have a hot ass to stare at!” I prefer to think my motivation is somewhat more feminist-friendly: I love strong, smart, capable women.

I love them in my games; I love them in my movies; I love them in my own writing. Probably 70% of the time, when I sit down to create a world and the characters in it, I find myself writing a female protagonist. For me, personally, it seems almost too obvious, too cliché, to have a male character saving the day through feats of derring-do, casually spouting witticisms or flexing his muscles with bravado. That’s not to say those characters can’t be enjoyable; I love the T-800, Riddick, Bourne, and Bond as much (or more) than the next guy. But I also love the less-common sight (in modern entertainment) of women who are just as capable: The Bride. Selene. Alice. Lara.

So yes, when I played through the Mass Effect trilogy, Commander Shepard was a woman. When playing Saints Row, I led the gang with a confident, capable, female Boss. In the years I spent playing World of Warcraft, you guessed it, my top character was a woman. Armchair psychologists can debate this in the comments section, I suppose. The point I’m making is that I, and many other male game-players, love female lead characters.

Alright, slight detour now, into recent developments in technology that promise to push video games to new levels of immersion. First, is the re-emergence of virtual reality, or VR. Now, VR isn’t “new,” as anyone who remembers 1992’s “Lawnmower Man,” or Aerosmith’s fantastic 1993 music video for “Amazing” can attest. Actually, hold on. I’m going to go watch that video on YouTube… Yep, still holds up, 20 years later! What was I talking about, again? Oh right: VR.

The Oculus Rift is the head-mounted VR display currently generating significant buzz in the gaming industry for its ability to put you “in” a virtual environment. Though it’s difficult to fully appreciate it without trying it for yourself, there are a couple of examples of other people’s first impressions that are pretty convincing. In addition to head-mounted, motion-tracking displays like the Rift, there are also things like the Sixense STEM System that can apply your body’s motion to a game character with relatively low latency. Now, imagine a game that combines these two technologies to allow you and your friends to join the same open world, but all of your characters are precisely mimicking your real-world movements. When you look down, you see the body of your avatar. When you gesture while speaking, your character does the same.

Now, this is where things get tricky for those of us who frequently choose characters of the opposite gender. In this theoretical game we’ve envisioned, you’re no longer playing a character; you are the character. This changes things, does it not?

It’s one thing to have a third-person, over-the-shoulder view of a character running around a game environment, or even a first-person view of a character as you manipulate the gamepad in your hands. There are still a few degrees of separation in those examples. I imagine it’s another thing entirely to see someone else’s hands when you move your own. Look down, bro; those breasts are on your body now. Do you still want to play a character of the opposite gender? Maybe, maybe not. We’ll find out.

Perhaps even more interesting is the potential for this technology to deliberately leverage these feelings in order to give people experiences that aren’t possible any other way, at least not to this degree of immersion. What if, for example, we make a simulation where you experience the perspective of a woman working in a male-dominated industry? (Like, say, the video game industry, perhaps?) So you’re a male office worker who doesn’t think it’s any big deal to leer at or make suggestive comments to your female co-workers? Let’s see if you still feel the same after spending a day in her virtual shoes.

Things are about to get interesting.

—–

I must thank my friend Tom for engaging me in the conversation that led to this post, as is often the case. And, on a side note, if anyone is interested in a modern day re-creation of the VR experience from “Amazing” for the Oculus Rift, I’m in. 🙂

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